So Baker's books, The Postmodern Animal (2000) and Picturing the Beast (2001), look at "animal death in contemporary art". The book he's writing just now, Art Before Ethics: Creativity and Animal Life, "proposes a distinctive link between creativity and ethical responsibility in the manner in which contemporary artists engage with questions of animal life". Baker's work has a central role in the backlash against Damien Hirst's hard-nosed and sharky relationship with animals, an attitude that allowed the YBA generation of the 90s to get just a little bit too cosy with sharky entrepreneurs and collectors like Saatchi and Jopling, people who seemed to be hunters at heart.
This backlash -- and it's, paradoxically, an aggressively gentle, even twee one -- seemed to be everywhere last time I was in London; Fischli and Weiss were dressed up as friendly hiking rats and pandas at the Tate, while Edwina Ashton was showing her cute videos of people dressed as animals acting as people up at the Camden Arts Centre. Rather than capitalist conquest and social Darwinism, this new mood stresses sentimental attachment to, and identification with, animals. There's a parallel plant movement going on -- think of Sergio Vega's work, or the big Tropico-Vegetal show at the Palais de Tokyo this summer. It's as if, aware that we're endangering so much wildlife, we need to make symbolic reparation for our eco-sins in the cultural world.
Steve Baker actually collaborated with Edwina Ashton last year. He's also interviewed and written about artist team Olly and Suzi. Olly and Suzi, influenced by Josef Beuys and early David Hockney, take big safari-type trips out to wilderness areas and sketch and paint the wildlife they find there, on the same canvas, at the same time. Almost as a pointed rebuke to Hirst, they've made studies of sharks in Guadalupe, for instance. Sometimes you get the feeling that meeting them at a party would be like an eco-tourism version of No Bra's "Munchausen" -- the anecdotal fabulousness could well prove fatal. How on earth to top their tales of dangerous yet thrilling holidays in exotic places, sketching the disappearing wolves? How to find loud enough applause for their action-packed videos of caged encounters with sharks? ("Loved your Olly and Suzi hats!") And how to avoid taking into account that Suzi is Suzi Winstanley, Damon Albarn's girlfriend?
Such adventures certainly play well with the press in the UK. But an article about the pair's trip to Antarctica last year to sketch the Leopard Seal (darling, simply everyone's going there now!) pinpoints another problem: Unspoiled Beach Syndrome. In an article entitled Artistic duo answer the call of the wild, but please don’t follow in their steps, Rachel Campbell-Johnston wrote:
"The world is already too harshly stamped with the imprint of human exploitation. Antarctica’s greatest value lies not in mineral riches, fishery resources or tourist revenue, but in that it remains a wilderness in which the imagination can roam. I hope that Olly and Suzi’s work will deter even as it attracts. I hope it will foster a fearful respect."
Listening to accounts of other people's dreams or holidays can be annoying enough as it is, but to listen only to be told that you mustn't, under any circumstances, attempt the same holidays, even if you could somehow one day afford them... well, it's enough to make you want to slip on your "Kill Your Pets" t-shirt. No harm intended, Baker.